Ikebana with Keiko Thayer

Melissa Woods

Keiko Thayer’s ikebana piece, created in PEM’s Japanese gallery. Photo credit Allison White.

Ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arranging, goes back as far as the 6th century. Originating from a blend of Buddhist and Shinto traditions, it transforms flower arrangement into a meditative and artistic act, emphasizing the form not just of flower buds, but of the leaves and stems of the plants, resulting in elegant compositions that bring pleasure to the senses and focus to the mind.

Keiko Thayer, an ikebana master, recently created a beautiful ikebana piece in our Japanese gallery, engaging a dialogue with a 19th-century Japanese painting depicting a leaping carp from the PEM collection and a newly-acquired contemporary Japanese vase with strong geometric lines.

A small group of PEM staff and friends gathered to witness her amazing creative process as Keiko laid down a piece of cloth and slowly unrolled a bundle containing various tools, sprigs of leaves, flowers and branches.

From the waxy, flat leaves of the orchid to the gnarled, wiry mulberry branches, she made her selections by placing each piece one by one into the ceramic vase until the presentation was complete.

Keiko Thayer in action, masterfully creating an ikebana piece at PEM. Photo credit Allison White.

Many of PEM’s East Asian objects have fascinating provenance and backstories. From Yin Yu Tang, the only intact Qing Dynasty house that exists outside of China and now stands on our grounds, to our exceptional collection of Asian Export Art, Korean Art and the Morse Collection of Japanese art, PEM has a special relationship with Asian culture.

Daisy Yiyou Wang, PEM’s Curator of Chinese and East Asian Art, watching Keiko work on the ikebana piece. Photo credit Allison White.

In 1967, a spritely 28-year-old Keiko embarked on a 6-month adventure to the United States from her hometown of Yokohama. She recalls a quiet life of housework and sewing classes with her sister before flying across the Pacific to stay with her brother in Los Angeles, who worked for Japanese Airlines at that time.

A glimpse into Keiko’s creative process. Photo credit Allison White.

From LA she bought a Greyhound ticket advertised as “$99 for 99 Days,” and speaking barely any English set off on her own to explore America by bus for almost two months.At the end of the route in San Francisco, she began the two-week journey by boat back to Japan, and as fate would have it, was bunked in the cabin next to her future husband, Jack Thayer. Jack had just graduated with a Masters in East Asian Art History from Harvard, one of the first programs of its kind, spoke excellent Japanese and practiced kendo, a Japanese martial art. By the end of the trip they had formed a connection that would later bloom into romance and happy marriage.

Over the years, Keiko has been recognized by the Foreign Minister for her work promoting and preserving Japanese art and culture.

When Jack Thayer joined PEM as a curator to help organize an exhibition for the Morse Collection, Keiko also joined as a volunteer and eventually began creating ikebana arrangements for the museum. Keiko also founded the very influential Salem-Ota Exchange Program, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year as a partnership between sister cities. Although Jack passed away in the 1990s, Keiko’s work for PEM never stops.

Daisy with Keiko and the finished ikebana piece. Photo credit Allison White.

In the Exchange Program she founded with Ota, 28 Japanese junior-high school students selected out of 450 applicants spend 12 days in the US between Boston, Salem and New York City. Nine of those days are spent here in Salem. Connie Arlander, mother of our own Ben Arlander who works in the museum’s IT department, has hosted nine children in her home since 1993 when Ben was in the program.

The culture and personal stories around PEM continue to enrich the discourse around our collection.

I so enjoyed meeting Keiko and experiencing her personal creativity that draws from a tradition over 1,500 years old. Here at the museum, we continue to meld past and present just as Keiko paired a very contemporary vase (made in 2007) with a scroll painting from the 19th-century Edo period, to present this wonderful art form at PEM.

Keiko’s beautiful piece within PEM’s Japanese gallery. Photo by Paige Besse.

Editor’s Note: Interested in Ikebana? Check out our online catalog for resources available here at the Phillips Library!

As Communications Specialist, Melissa helps manage PEM’s external communication with both press and patrons. She holds an MBA in Public and Non-Profit Management from Boston University (2016) and a BA from Wellesley College in Studio Art (2008). In her free time, she likes to listen to music, see live music, and obsessively organize her music collection.

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